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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Agape Agape

William Gaddis

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To purchase Agape Agape

Title: Agape Agape
Author: William Gaddis
Genre: Novel
Written: (2002)
Length: 112 pages
Availability: Agape Agape - US
Agape Agape - UK
Agape Agape - Canada
Agape Agape - India
Agonie d'agapè - France
Das mechanische Klavier - Deutschland
L'agonia dell'agape - Italia
Ágape se paga - España
  • First published posthumously, in 2002
  • With an Afterword by Joseph Tabbi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective rant, convincing rambling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . Winter/2002 Rick Moody
Daily Telegraph . 4/1/2003 Alan Marshall
Entertainment Weekly C 1/11/2002 Troy Patterson
The Guardian . 21/12/2002 Peter Dempsey
The Guardian . 17/12/2005 Alfred Hickling
London Rev. of Books . 24/7/2003 Hal Foster
The LA Times . 14/10/2002 Merle Rubin
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 9/9/2003 Uwe Pralle
NY Press . 17/12/2002 Jim Knipfel
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/10/2002 Sven Birkerts
News & Observer A 13/10/2002 J. Peder Zane
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2003 Thomas Hove
San Francisco Chronicle A+ 20/10/2002 Andrew Ervin
The Spectator A 18/1/2003 John de Falbe
Sunday Times . 19/1/2003 Peter Kemp
TLS . 10/1/2003 Stephen Burn
VLS . Fall/2002 Ed Park
Wilson Quarterly . Fall/2002 Paul Maliszewski

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, not always entirely sure what to make of it

  From the Reviews:
  • "There are many fine passages, even if Gaddis's prose, for my money, doesn't always stand comparison with Bernhard's. It's not a book to rush through but to savour, and here and there you get to glimpse the greater mountains in the distance." - Alan Marshall, Daily Telegraph

  • "(A) plotless, posthumous 96-page spew of what we're obliged to call "postmodern thought." " - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "There is very little sense of community in this work, but the engaged relationship between text and reader is offered as an alternative model to passive consumption. Gaddis, though, is more subtle yet." - Peter Dempsey, The Guardian

  • "Fortunately, unlike the rest of Gaddis's output, it isn't very long, but there are more than enough impacted arguments about the decline of western civilisation (...) to keep the reader cross-eyed for quite some time." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "Agape Agape is also composed as a collage of texts, though it is much leaner than the others, a last delirious solo. More than the other books, this one makes a subject of its own (un)making, and dramatises the predicament of the author in the process." - Hal Foster, London Review of Books

  • "(D)ie Suada eines alten Mannes, der vom Furor seiner Jugend nichts verloren hat. (...) Vom Esprit und von der Dynamik des polemischen Monologs ganz abgesehen, ist bemerkenswert, wie Gaddis seine Abrechnung mit der amerikanischen 'Technikbesessenheit' instrumentiert hat." - Uwe Pralle, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Despite its slimness, it can still be exhausting at times. As always, Gaddis plays with punctuation, his sentences are splintered and repetitious, quotes and half-quotes and references float into and out of the monologue like water. Yet thereís something on virtually every page -- an idea, a turn of phrase, a bit of invective, a peculiar historical note -- that stopped me for a moment." - Jim Knipfel, New York Press

  • "(I)ts every strange sentence carries full disciplined intention, hurtling toward synthesis even as it writhes and rails. (...) Agape Agape is not, even by the most generous allowance, a novel. A thinly veiled autobiographical rant does not a fiction make. But neither is it just a brimstone tract." - Sven Birkerts, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is not a hard book, but a rich one. It is not like an onion or Russian doll whose hidden depths reveal new mysteries. It is a precisely cut diamond whose brilliance appears at first glance but whose myriad facets -- a dance of light and shadow -- multiply through reflection." - J. Peder Zane, News & Observer

  • "Gaddis enthusiasts looking for anything particularly original in Agape Agape will be disappointed. But for anyone who wants to see the familiar Gaddis references and themes played out one last time, itís an extremely interesting final testament of a great artist facing that most ruthless of all democratizers, death" - Thomas Hove, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(E)ither the last true masterpiece of the 20th century or the first of our new millennium. (...) Agape Agape is a book to savor, to read aloud, to repeat as desired." - Andrew Ervin, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Veering wildly from cogent argument to rant, the narrative tone is brilliantly realised, and yet the central thread remains clear. (...) Although not in itself an original idea, the way in which Gaddis expresses it is striking not only for its force but also for its paradoxical coherence." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "Gaddis's most revealing affinities lie with nineteenth-century authors, such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Melville and Emerson. (...) Reflecting all that has been left out and the collapse of a larger project, Agape Agape derives much of its poignancy from its status as the last word of one of the most significant American authors of the last century." - Stephen Burn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A)s difficult and pleasurable as its title. It is many things: a gloriously messy précis of his decades-long obsession with the player piano and the sundering of the communal love (agape) he believed it signaled; the materialization of a book by the same name that JR's Jack Gibbs toils over; and a feedback-leaking cover version of Concrete, a 1982 novel by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard" - Ed Park, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Agape Agape was written by Gaddis with the understanding that it would be his last published act as an author. That crushing awareness of his own end nearing is palpable on every page. As a consequence, the writing is as deeply melancholic as it is direct. Thoughts are expressed without frills and with the utmost urgency." - Paul Maliszewski, Wilson Quarterly


  • "The book is mainly a free-form rant, however, with the sentences, yes, run the sentences, run together, make it choppy, even easier than it looks but no what no, what matters is the art. (...) The novel did manage to stab me with its final note (...) but I was moved for the very reasons that Gaddis denigrated throughout his career: because I was touched by the human shambles. I was thinking of the artist, not the art." - Jonathan Franzen, The New Yorker (30/9/2002)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The words of the title, Agape Agape, are both the yawning chasm (and open-mouthed wondering) of the English word, and the early church love feast (as Gaddis calls it) that is the Greek word (with a distinguishing diacritical mark over the ultimate e). Agape -- the Greek one -- is one of the things the narrator misses in the contemporary world, and especially the contemporary arts, where imitation and mindless reproduction often and easily pushes aside true innovation and creativity:

That natural merging of created life in this creation in love that transcends it, a celebration of the love that created it they called agape, that love feast in the early church, yes. That's what's lost, what you don't find in these products of the imitative arts that are made for reproduction on a grand scale
       The narrator of Agape Agape is an ailing and debilitated old man, trying here to set down his ideas one last time in some sort of summing up. The book is, as editor Joseph Tabbi notes in his afterword, influenced by the fiction of Thomas Bernhard. Gaddis uses a style found in many of Bernhard's fictions: long sentences following trains of thought (with all the twist and turns that entails), and considerable repetition (with slight variations). A Bernhard-like focus on music and specific pieces of literature is also found here -- with Gaddis even going so far as to focus specifically on Bernhard-favourite Glenn Gould. But then the concerns and outlook of these two old men, Gaddis and Bernhard, were very similar.
       The novella begins in a rush and also, immediately, with negation and hesitation, as if to signal the impossibility of the task ahead. The first words read:
No but you see I've got to explain all this because I don't, we don't know how much time there is left
       There's desperation from the first -- to hurry and finish before death, but also because the task itself overwhelms in the face of the contemporary world.
       Gaddis doesn't try to make it easier for the reader, slowly introducing his undertaking or anything like that. There isn't even an indentation starting the paragraph -- making it seem as though the reader came aboard midstream (or rather: in the last stages of the precipitous fall). There are no paragraphs at all, and barely any moments to catch ones breath. The first sentence is over a page long, and few are of any normal length (or, often, structure) -- an attempt to suck the reader into the narrative by not letting him or her go, but also a means of throwing and scaring off those who can't hold on through the buckling ride on those first pages.
       This isn't a straightforward story. It is a rant -- and a plea.
       The narrator complains:
along comes Bentham with "Pushpin is as good as poetry if the quantity of pleasure given is the same" see that word quantity ?
       It is this pushpin-mentality the narrator rails against throughout. He is a staunch defender of and believer in quality, above all else, and if nothing else it is the incredible value of quality he wants to convey.
       He is bothered by this "turning the creative artist into a performer, into a celebrity", and tries to shift the focus to the art (and what the art can mean). He uses a variety of examples -- including Gould, Plato, Pozdnyshev from Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, and poor Melville -- fairly effectively weaving them into his rant. There is also some nice stuff about literary prizes and honours. A longtime Gaddis-obsession, the player piano -- the ultimate symbol of pushpin triumphing over poetry --, also is nicely used in the text.
       Agape Agape is short enough that the stylistic demands -- the long sentences cutting abruptly back and forth, the jumping thoughts, etc. -- are manageable. It is a convincing summing up from an old artist literally on his deathbed, trying to remind a world of what is of truly lasting value (and why). It's an argument made with a great deal of passion, but also quite well presented (if one considers the examples and the reasoning).
       Agape Agape won't appeal to everybody: readers who like their prose straightforward and simple probably won't have the patience even for these few pages. And even Gaddis-fans might be surprised by it -- it's very different in approach and even tone than most of his other fiction. Still: worth a look -- and Thomas Bernhard fans should feel quite at home with it.

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Agape Agape: Reviews: William Gaddis: Other books by William Gaddis under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author William Gaddis (1922-1998) won two National Book Awards (for J.R. and A Frolic of His Own) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

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